Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all.
For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography, especially with the composition.
If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimise the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.
Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect, but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of field experience and practice.
There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.
With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.
When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.
Please keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you should find good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.
he next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.
Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. Having said that you don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens at the beginning. Most companies these days offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.
Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.
A nice background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, leave the area.
Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture. Pay extra care to this. An expert mentor of mine has always reminded me of “ETTR”. In digital photography, ETTR means Expose To The Right. This ensures optimal performance out of the digital image sensor at the base ISO (ISO defines your camera’s sensitivity to light). It is always much easier and a more rewarding experience to post-process a good photograph.
Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.
Canon EOS 90D, Nikon D7500 and Sony α6400 E-mount are my recommendations. These cameras would give great results with their corresponding lens models. For camera and lens reviews, you can visit The-Digital-Picture.com, KenRockwell.com and DPReview.
Jainy Kuriakose is a passionate wildlife photographer with specialisation in bird photography since 2008. She has photographed over 1,100+ species of birds in India and photographed internationally as well in the US including Alaska, UK, Kenya, Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo, Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Qatar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Canada, Bhutan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland including Arctic Lapland, Norway and Papua New Guinea. I have also photographed 60 rare mammals from India including Kashmir Markhor, Red Panda, Kashmir Stag, Argali and Tibetan Gazelle. Some of her key bird sightings from India have been published in several international magazines, books and other publications.
This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme ‘Nature Communications’ to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.